Hiking to Lake JiaMing

I promised to write a little about my trip to lake JiaMing here in Taiwan, a high altitude lake created by a meteor over 3000 years ago, located at 3310 meters in altitude.

I set out at 5 in the morning with my friend, landscape photographer Ming-Nan, as we wanted to reach the cabin early enough to avoid the usual afternoon rains that the plum rainy season brings to Taiwan this time of year. The hike is not too challenging to the first cabin just past the 4 km mark, taking us about two hours and making a nice spot to stop and have our breakfast. It is located right next to a mountain stream you have to cross in the middle of the pine forest which opens up nicely by the cabin to let in lots of sunshine.

The trail becomes very steep for the next 2 kilometers or so as you ascend to the first pass, reaching old juniper trees. The high altitude leaves you feeling pretty zapped at this point as you have ascended more than 1000 meters, but the threat of rain left us unable to take any breaks. We finally reached the second cabin by 13:00 hours. Much to my delight a group of vinaceous rose finches were happily hopping around camp, not at all bothered by our arrival. Since I was not carrying my heavy 300mm lens, I did not snap any pictures, but here is one of my shots from Mt. Hehuanshan of a rosefinch:

After a little bite to eat we settled down for a nap, with the monsoon rain pummeling the roof of the cabin I was quickly lulled to sleep. A few hours later we were woken by the arrival of a small group of hikers, soaked to the bone. Taiwanese are well-known for their hospitality and are always very, very friendly - and so when you meet fellow hikers there are always exchanges of stories over tea, lots of chit chat and when spotting me - lots of curiosity.

My head had started pounding for real from the altitude at this point. Moving made me real queasy and sounds made it all worse ... there are oxygen tanks in the cabins since many hikers suffer from worse problems due to the high altitude.

Ming-Nan brewed a hot concoction of from dried plum paste that the aboriginals here swear by for altitude problems - and lo and behold it really helped. Two hours later I was feeling much, much better. By then the weather had cleared to reveal the most stunning star studded sky, with the milky way being clearly visible from north to south. I was starting to feel excited about having to get up at 3 am to start our hike to the lake, because with views like this I was sure it would not be dull.

Now even though rising at 3 am might sound like a pain in the you know what under normal circumstances, when sleeping on a hard wooden platform, frankly, I am ready to get up by about then anohoo. The night was cool (9C) and walking in the dark was really pleasant after the scorching time in the sun during the day. The hike to the lake is not a walk in the park though, taking you over several peaks and up and down some rather treacherous terrain that invites the mantra 'just don't look down'. As the first light and color appeared on the sky we could make out some ominous cloud formations right above the area where the lake is, even though there were clear skies almost everywhere else. Ming-Nan muttered something that left no doubt that this was not a good sign.

When we reached the lake the weather was indeed less than perfect for photography, but then again in such matters there never are any guarantees and at least it was not raining. We spent about 6 hours at the lake taking pictures from various angles and just enjoying the blissful quiet and peace by the lake. When we started back it very quickly packed up for rain, earlier than normal, so unfortunately there was no chance to stop for photos along the way back. Luckily the rain didn't start coming down at full monsoon strength until just before reaching back to the cabin.

We were debating whether to make another hike back to the lake the next morning when hikers started arriving in substantial numbers. One of the guides confirmed there was a typhoon on the way so any thoughts of going to the lake again we scratched.

The cabin filled up to capacity as it was Friday evening. Almost all activities in Taiwan center around eating and hiking is not exception. While we were making due with dehydrated rations, the arriving groups had brought bags of vegetables, cabbages, meat, kilos of rice, huge pots and woks and too many gas canisters to count. A makeshift kitchen was set up in one corner of the cabin, where little by little meals worthy of an upmarket Chinese restaurant started to take shape. The cabin filled with the smell of fried garlic, chili, ginger and soy sauce. The rain stopped.
A brilliant full double rainbow formed right outside the cabin from one end of the valley to the other as at last we glimpsed the late evening sun on this almost summer solstice. We all crowded out of the cabin, mugs in hand, and despite the slight drizzle Ming-Nan and I grabbed our cameras. There is always a feeling in me that the camera cannot do justice to the experience in such a moment, but still here is what I captured:

By 8 I snuggled into sleep, my earplugs being my most treasured possession after my sleeping bag that night. I slept like a baby and didn't wake until 5 am. Ming-Nan confessed he had barely slept a wink due to the noise level in the cabin. Earplugs, gotta love 'em.

We slowly packed up and started off on the return hike, where I had planned to do some more photography, but once again the weather sidetracked those plans. We were able to patch through a call on our mobile phones to find out about the typhoon and apparently it was fast approaching Taiwan. The clouds were moving faster and faster above us, the weather packing up, looking ominous. We made a rapid descend of about four hours. My toes were blistering and when we were caught in a huge downpour by the end of the trail, I didn't bother to get out my rain gear. The cool rain was a welcome shower after days of sweating it out :)

The next day the typhoon became weaker and changed course so nothing serious came of it.

Now this was good news in more than one way: usually the crops of the farmers are badly destroyed by summer typhoons here. But so far this year they have been spared and as a result the price of mangoes, guava and lichee fruits is so cheap they are almost not worth picking for the farmers. Meanwhile we are enjoying this very much as Taiwan grows some of the best fruit in the world. Tonight we made a favorite of mine, sticky rice with sweet and salty coconut cream and mango. There were no leftovers :)

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